We landed in Sofia dreary eyed and exhausted from an epic New Year’s Eve party in Edinburgh. Our plan was to go skiing in Bansko, Bulgaria’s most popular ski resort to warm up for our ski tour through the alps at a more affordable price. When we stepped off the three hour bus journey from Sofia to Bansko, we were greeted with the beautiful Piran mountains, ready for some adventure and an epic Balkan ski holiday.
We learned a lot about having a ski holiday in this Bulgarian town, some good things, and many bordering bad. It’s actually very hard to place a finger on how I felt after leaving Bansko, so I’ll try to break down some honest helpful tips about the experience here.
Bansko Ski Tips to Know!
1.Get there early!
If there is one tip I can’t stress enough for your holiday in Bansko it is to arrive at the gondola station early. Especially on the weekend, school holidays, or high season. At its peak, the Bansko gondola becomes a total catastrophic mess. If I had never been to a mountain resort before it would honestly put me off from a ski holiday in general, so try to get there early (or better yet in the offseason) to avoid this feeling.
To reach the mountain you must take the gondola as the town sits at a much lower elevation. The one gondola services the thousands of ski pass holders and that means queue times can get ridiculous.
Think…two to three hours long in the high season! No one is happy spending their precious winter holiday in a line while wearing ski boots and carrying ski/snowboard gear. We suggest you arrive at the gondola right when it opens to avoid long wait times. That means 8 am or before. We made the mistake of getting there at 8:20 one day and waited 40 minutes in line. Then the next day we figured we would skip the whole morning rush and get there at 11:30 only to find the lines even crazier (two-hour wait).
Additionally, all those people taking the gondola up are clearly going skiing and snowboarding, meaning that during the high season the mountain becomes a madhouse as Bansko doesn’t put a cap on visitors. The morning time before 10 am was the quietest time for us to enjoy the pistes without a ton of other people. Additionally, if you venture off the blues and hit up the resorts few red and black runs you will also find less people.
2. There are alternative ways up
When faced with a two-hour queue we knew our day would be shot if we waited. We had three options – to throw in the towel on snowboarding at Bansko for the day, take a cab up the mountain, or wait.
We decided to take a cab for 10 BGN per person in a shared van. Cabs can take you up to either the top station or to Shilligarnika where there is a chairlift. Be sure to agree to a price beforehand to avoid being ripped off. Vans typically don’t leave till full so it’s best if you are traveling as a group.
If you have a rental or your own car it is also possible to drive up the ski road. However, parking is limited so this should also be an early endeavor.
There is one saving grace if you are staying at one of the selected hotels that offers VIP fast passes. The fast pass ensures quick access to the Gondola lift via a private line/entrance. Prices for the Ski VIP lift tickets are roughly 75 BGN per day.
3. Buy your Bansko lift tickets the day before
This is a very important thing to know before you go skiing in Bansko. If you have not pre-purchased your lift tickets with a holiday operator then go to the gondola station the day before you plan to ski and buy them. As you cannot buy your lift tickets until the offices open at 8:30, but you will need your lift passes to get on the gondola which opens at 8 am…and remember what I said happens to the gondola after 8:30?
To avoid the lines you should buy your passes the day before. But hold on! Turns out that for some Bulgarian reason you cannot buy your lift passes for the next day until 4 pm the day before so plan accordingly.
4. Bring cash
While it is possible to pay for your ski lift passes with a credit card make sure to bring some Bulgarian Leva for your Bansko ski holiday. Whether it be taxi cabs, restaurants, or bars they often requested to be paid in cash.
Most of the restaurants on the slopes accept credit cards, but every time we tried to pay we were asked for cash. Plus no one wants to run a credit card for a few coffees or a drink. If you want to know how we manage foreign currencies read our guide to travel banking.
5. Lift tickets are affordable
Bulgaria is known to be an inexpensive country to travel. That remains true when it comes to costs associated with a Bankso ski holiday. One of the reasons we went to Bansko is because we could enjoy a full week here for a reasonable price. With lift tickets costing just 58 BGN a day, good fun can be had without breaking the bank. This is part of the reason Bansko becomes such a crazy mad ski resort as tons of Europeans are seeking out a good deal.
There is also a good range of hotels around catering to every budget. Equipment rental and lessons can be had for a good price as well! It’s the perfect ski resort to come and enjoy the pistes without forking over your soul for the Swiss Alps. To compare it to Italy or Austria we would say prices are about 30% cheaper, except in the case of restaurants that can be high priced in Western Europe.
6. Beginners are welcome
Due to the low cost in comparison to resorts in the European Alps, Japan, or North America, Bansko is a good place to come for beginners. You can buy package holidays that include your accommodation, food, lift tickets, and equipment for less than $1000 for one week. In a place like Colorado that could cost you double if not triple the price. If it’s your first ski trip you won’t truly know if you’ll enjoy skiing or snowboarding so it’s better to figure that out before dropping your retirement on a trip!
We found Bansko ski resort to be family friendly with a few bunny hills and beginner runs to learn on. Much less intimidating for a first timer than say Chamonix? We found many large families with children on the mountain and all seemed to be in good spirit (although much more crowded than other European resorts. Low prices = larger crowds.
7. The queues never end
I mentioned that there were serious queues to get up the mountain via gondola, but they don’t stop there. In the busy season, you’ll also find queues to get down the mountain as well! Don’t worry, they aren’t nearly as long as getting up but you could be standing around in your gear for a good 20-30 minutes before getting into your carriage down.
There is another way down the mountain and that is the ski road. The ski road is a long and easy piste from the resort to Bansko town. It’s great for beginners as it’s relatively flat. The ski road is easily the more active way to get down the mountain, but be forewarned this run can also get very very busy towards the end of the day so you’ll have to know how to control yourself on a ski or snowboard to get down. After a few days of taking the ski road and witnessing a few collisions, we opted to take the gondola down at the end of the day.
8. Bring everything you will need for the day
Since you’ll have to take a 30-minute gondola ride up and either a gondola ride or long ski road down you’ll want to make sure to bring everything up to the mountain that you will need for the day.
I suggest doing a double check before you leave your hotel and make sure all hats, gloves, phones, chapstick, and everything in between is accounted for! Additionally, there are no lockers on the mountain, be prepared to carry it on your back all day.
9. Stay nearby
I would highly suggest staying near the gondola lift to make the most out of your trip. A hotel with a shuttle bus to the lifts is also going to make your life before and after your ski day much easier. We stayed at two different hotels while in Bansko, one self-catered and one a reasonable five-star hotel. We can’t sing enough praise about either place!
Premier Luxury Mountain Resort
The Premier Mountain Resort is one of the best hotels in Bansko. It’s about a five-minute drive, or 15-minute walk from the gondola station and is secluded from the rest of town. Premier Mountain Resort envelops you with charming mountain vibes once you walk inside. You can expect a roaring fireplace, lively bar, and large spa.
Besides being beautiful a few notable things we really enjoyed about Bansko’s Premier Luxury Resort is the attached ski shop. It is here that you can rent your gear with ease without having to bother going into town. We travel with our own snowboard gear but we did need to have our boards waxed, which we got done at the ski shop effortlessly and for an affordable price.
The hotel also has a basement ski room where you can store your gear. The room was spacious and had boot drying racks meaning we didn’t have to put on any wet items in the morning. There are two restaurants at Premier. One for buffet style and one ala carte as well as a bar with a modern fireplace and TV. We personally ate at the downstairs buffet restaurant for all our meals so that we could cram all the food we needed to keep energized for a week on the slopes – yes, there are vegetarian options! We found the bar to be extremely lively and a great place to recap the alpine adventures with your friends at the end of each day.
Besides the complimentary shuttle service that ran to the gondola in the morning and afternoon we found out that the Premier Mountain Resort is one of the only hotels in Bansko that offers the VIP Fast Pass. For 17 BGN extra you can purchase this type of lift pass and it essentially allows visitors to skip the gondola line and get straight on. Only a few high-end hotels offer this so to us this pass is gold.
You have a couple options for room choices at the hotel. We were upgraded to a mountain view junior suite which was comfortable and spacious. Every day we returned a to a toasty room and couch to relax on while working on the fast WiFi.
Saint George Palace Hotel
After a few days at the Premier, we transferred to a self-catering hotel. We really like to cook our own food when we travel since we are pescatarians and somewhat picky eaters. The studio room at Saint George Hotel was perfect for us! As we walked in for the first time we were greeted with a large coat room to keep our snowboards in, a kitchen with a stove, oven, full sized fridge, living room, and king size bed with a foam mattress topper (seriously heaven when you travel full time). There are different sizes of apartments so no matter the size of your family the Saint George Palace will be able to accommodate your party comfortably. We enjoyed having free and fast WiFi in our room at the Saint George so that we could catch up on emails and social media after our day on the mountain.
The Saint George Palace hotel boasts an impressive swimming pool and spa area. Actually, they claim to have one of the largest swimming pools in Bansko and after having a dip I can say that it is wonderful. The pool is enclosed by a glass ceiling providing astonishing views of the Pirin Mountains above. There is also a dry sauna and steam bath here which is perfect for relieving your muscles after an active day outside. For those that take a day off from the mountain activities (or want extra exercise), there is also a well-equipped fitness center.
There are two bars and a restaurant at Saint George Palace Hotel. The bars are great for catching up with friends and there is a play area for children as well so that adults can relax a bit without the kids! Although we didn’t need ski rental equipment the Saint George Hotel also offers a ski rental shop for visitors as well as a complimentary shuttle transferring guests to and from the gondola during peak operating hours.
10. There are two Bansko town centers
After reading a few Trip Advisor reviews of the town of Bansko itself I was a bit hesitant to go. Things like “close to what war-torn Yugoslavia looks like” and “sex club galore” stuck in my mind. I can confirm that the area around the gondola is not an ideal place to spend a holiday unless you are an 18 year old boy. Around the gondola, Bansko is lined with clubs, go-go dancing bars, potholed streets, loud pumping music, and every restaurant has a male peddler outside persuading you to enter his establishment. To put it nicely, Bansko town wasn’t exactly my favorite or most relaxing ski town I have ever visited.
However, once you start walking away from the crowds and the main center the seedy party atmosphere starts to die town. Actually, Bansko turns quite charming and what I would expect from an old Bulgarian town. Bansko’s old town is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a beautiful collection of old stone buildings and cobbled streets. Just keep walking down Pirin Street about 10 minutes from the gondola and the whole atmosphere will be different. Be sure to check out the Velyanova house to go inside a traditional 18th century Bansko house for only 3 BGN.
11. There’s WiFi!
We found free and open WiFi at all the restaurants and bars on the mountain!
12. There are no lockers
There aren’t any lockers at the top of the mountain so anything you bring up you’re going to have to carry with you for the day. We really like to carry a water bottle and a few snacks with us when we travel so we would suggest bringing a small backpack and skiing or snowboarding with it throughout the day.
13. Brush up on your ski etiquette
As mentioned, it can get very busy on the mountain so be sure to practice proper ski etiquette! Always stay in control, be prepared to stop for others in front of you, understand your own skill level and abilities, and don’t stop in spots that obstruct others.
This one I saw a lot at Bansko – people stopping to fix their bindings or talk on their cell phone in the middle of the slope and have a chat with their friends in the middle of a run. Don’t be that person and you and others around you will have a fantastic Balkan ski holiday.
Would I recommend skiing in Bansko?
All in all, would I recommend a ski trip in Bansko? Looking at the price aspect, the food and accommodation options are definitely a bit cheaper than other ski towns in Europe. With a notable emphasis on the food part. Off the mountain, a pair could score a good and hearty meal in Bansko with drinks for less than $30.
In Switzerland or Austria, this could cost at least double the price. In the mountain huts, I found the food to be overpriced for Bulgaria with a coffee coasting 6 BGN and a lunchtime meal costing between 20-30 BGN. Lift tickets, although cheaper than in the Dolomites, Switzerland, and Austria are not that much cheaper.
As I mentioned a one-day lift ticket will cost 58 BGN, or €30. A lift ticket in say Arlberg, one of Austria’s (and the worlds) best ski regions is just €53. So if you are on a major budget, I think Bansko is a okayish place to visit particularly for saving on food and basic lodging, but not lift tickets. I personally would rather spend a bit more and go to the better ski towns and mountains in Europe.
If you plan to take a ski holiday around the weekend or busy seasons – that is around Christmas, New Year’s, or European school holidays I would stay the hell away from Bansko simply because of the queues at the gondola and the madhouse of people on a small mountain resort. I seriously can think of way better things I could have done with my week than wait in a gondola line for a few hours every day. After talking to numerous locals they noted that in any period other than high season Bansko is a charming and quiet place to visit.